Category Archives: Opera

Classical pieces make it to The Star’s 100 saddest songs list

Just saw The Star’s 100 saddest songs list via and was pleased to find that several pieces of classical music has made the list. Tomasino Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor and Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament”  were perhaps not terribly surprising additions to the list, but I was glad that Dido made it as far as to the top 20 of the list, and I was so pleased to see Dowland’s “In Darkness let me Dwell” take the list’s bronze medal for sadness. I was also impressed that Arvo Pärt’s “Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten” was included – I’m not even sure I would have thought of that one, but it’s really apt, I think. And it doesn’t get much sadder than “Der Leiermann”, so kudos to The Star for commemorating Schubert, too. Every lied from Winterreise might well have been included, but of course they would have taken up too much space, and I do think the ole’ hurdy-gurdy man is a good representative.

Not so sure about Chopin’s prelude no. 4 in E-minor, though. I’ve heard it described as “sad” before, but I really think it’s more sensual and/or languid than it is sad. Fact: when I was a teenager I once had a make-out session to this very piece and it worked just fine . Also, let’s not forget that this was the very piece to which Tori Spelling did a striptease in the movie Co-ed Call Girl.
(Come to think of it, do let’s forget about it. Let’s forget that scene ever happened.)

Anyway, I thought I’d make a few extra suggestions for classical contributions to the list of saddest songs:

“Ack! Istomilas ya gorem” from Tchaikovsky: Pique Dame
I’ve talked about this one before, but it remains one of the saddest arias ever to me:

“Se pietà di me non senti” from Händel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto
Such a rush of sadness in the strings in this one, and such an eloquent tristesse in the soprano voice:

“Ella giammai m’amo” from Verdi: Don Carlos
It’s starting to border on the ridiculous how many times I’ve written about this aria, but there it is: When it comes to sadness there is just no way around King Philip alone in his chamber, dreading death and mourning his loveless marriage:

“Flow my Tears” by John Dowland
Because we were not done with John Dowland just yet. And because Andreas Scholl rocks:

Funeral March from Wagner: Götterdämmerung
I’ll admit that this one isn’t just sad. It’s also grandiose. It’s also intimidating and frightening. It’s also hopeful in some places, stirring as it does with the memory of the fallen hero. But the sadness immanent in the piece is definitely sufficient to earn this piece a place on the list. Besides, it heralds the ending of an entire world, so as far as sadness goes it doesn’t get much more in-your-face-ish than this:

Coventry Carol
It’s a lullaby for a baby doomed to be murdered. ‘Nuff said.

Now let’s hear your favorite sad classical pieces! Or non-classical, I’m not picky.

“Critics have often commented on his ‘windmill arms'”

As I’ve mentioned before, I am a sucker for anyone who’s able to communicate classical music in a humorous way online. Which is why I’m completely enamored by baritone Robert Orths homepage biography, posted today by one a concert hall manager Facebook friend of mine.

From the bit about Orth having “clawed his way to the middle”, via the “toothy smile” and to the self irony when it comes to the listing of only moderately prominent stages on which he has appeared, it is pure genius and a great spin on the usual, pretty generic singers resumés.

Well played, Robert Orth. Well played.

La commedia è finita! – on the Cuckold as a Comical Figure

I recently saw my first Pagliacci ever, and I was blown away. What a powerful, tight, intense piece. Although I did not know the story in advance, I knew enough about operas to know where it was going, but I still got goosebumps at the ending with Canio’s rash act and his wonderfully meta declaration that “the comedy is over”.

And then I also really feel that Pagliacci marks a pivotal point in the history of male characters in theatre, namely the point of intersection between the cuckold as a comical and a tragic figure.

Certainly the comical cuckold is the more prominent one of the two. In the history of theatre, the figure can be traced back as far as to mimes and pantomimes in the 1st century B.C. The few surviving descriptions of the aliterary mime shows make it clear that infidelity was a recurring theme within the genre, and representations of the mime in various reliefs show tableaux of beautiful ladies, their charming lovers, and their stupid, cuckold husbands. As Marianne Grandjean notes in her article on the mime of late antiquity, the cuckold is often depicted as a bald man, perhaps to indicate that he is older than the woman and her lover, and it seems clear that these cuckolds are comical figures: The charming young lovers point at them with ridiculing attitudes, and the audience are supposed to laugh at these men. It is of course difficult to say exactly how these men became the butt of the joke, but as oscenity and sex jokes played an important part in the mime shows, it seems pretty safe to me to say that it was the cuckold’s unsatisfied sexual appetite that made him as a character: He wanted some, and he wasn’t gettin’ any.

No link has ever been identified between late-antiquity mime and the commedia dell’arte tradition of the 16th century, but the cuckold of the commedia dell’arte, Pantalone, has a lot in common with the cuckold of late-antiquity mime shows. Often known as Pantalone il Bisognosi (Pantalone the Needy), his trademark was, to put it bluntly, that he wanted to have a lot of sex, especially with his beautiful young wife, the female lead, who didn’t care for his advances and who would cheat on him with a younger, more handsome lover, while the audience laughed at the silly, cockblocked old man.

Pantalone. Even in the 16th century, footsie pajamas apparently did not do it for the ladies.

The Pagliacci characters are a typical travelling commedia dell’arte troupe. There’s no Pantalone in Pagliacci, but the character of Pagliaccio seems to be based partially on Pantalone, partially on the more recent commedia dell’arte character of clownish Pierrot. However, Pagliacci came about in the time of the Italian verismo in the 19th century rather than in the heyday of Pantalone and his fellow commedia dell’arte characters, and I think this shows when it comes to the motif of the cuckold. As late as in the 18th century the ridiculous cuckold could still be found on stage in plays by the likes of Molière or Beaumarchais, but by the end of the 19th century, the tragic cuckolds started appearing: Most prominently, I suppose, in plays by Strindberg and Ibsen. In Ibsen’s The Wild Duck the revelation that Hedvig may not be Hjalmar Ekdal’s daughter marks the crux of the tragedy, and of course in Strindberg’s The Father the entire plot revolves around the notion that Laura has made a cuckold out of The Captain. And there is certainly no humour in the Swedish realist’s take on the theme. Not only does The Captain genuinely grieve for the loss of the love that once was between himself and his wife:

CAPTAIN. (…) I feel your shawl against my mouth; it is as warm and soft as your arm, and it smells of vanilla, like your hair when you were young! Laura, when you were young, and we walked in the birch woods, with the primroses and the thrushes–glorious, glorious! Think how beautiful life was, and what it is now. You didn’t want to have it like this, nor did I, and yet it happened. Who then rules over life?

The idea of his wife’s possible unfaithfulness (and, thus, the fact that Bertha may not actually be The Captain’s child) also disrupts his entire perception of his own existence:

CAPTAIN. (…) I do not believe in a hereafter; the child was my future life. That was my conception of immortality, and perhaps the only one that has any analogy in reality. If you take that away from me, you cut off my life.

I haven’t done enough research to determine whether or not it is plausible that Pagliacci composer and librettist Leoncavallo had read or attended the cuckold tragedies of Ibsen and Strindberg, but the verismo opera composer clearly shares their interest in exploring the psychology of the cuckold. What is so exceptionally fascinating in Pagliacci is, however, that Leoncavallo examines the tragic aspects of the cuckold man all the while acknowledging the comic potential of the motif. The central aria of the opera revolves around the idea of laughing at the cuckold buffoon (“Ridi, Pagliaccio!”), and in the frantic play-within-the-play ending the opera, the ambiguity of the cuckold as a comical/tragic figure is constantly at play. The audience-within-the-play wants nothing more than to laugh at the buffoon, but cuckold Canio’s very real despair is constantly creeping into the caricatured pantomime grief of the cuckold Pagliaccio.

Significantly, Canio’s unfaithful wife Nedda is not dealt the demonic tendencies of Strindberg’s Laura. Rather, she becomes a painful inbodiment of the conflict between the comical and the tragic cuckold: We can’t help rooting for the poor woman who loves her Silvio so dearly, and it’s for her sake that we want to regard Canio as the fool. As several researchers have noted, the theme of the cuckold in late-antiquity mime shows as well as in the commedia dell’arte did not come out of nowhere. The motif became popular in the male dominated patriarchies of late antiquity and 16th century Italy in which women would often be at the mercy of their controlling husbands and have very limited means of personal or sexual emancipation. Tellingly, both the mime shows and the commedia dell’arte marked themselves by allowing women to rise to fame and fortune on stage at a time when women were generally not allowed to star in theatre productions. In late anitquity there are even instances of women becoming managers of mime troupes and it is easy to imagine that these women would have been a driving force in the furthering of the ridiculous male authoritative figure in the mime shows. Pagliacci was written at a time when women’s liberation was slowly building and the need for ridicule of partriarchy was less acute, but the beauty of it, to me, is that the cuckold story of Pagliacci doesn’t claim to hold any simple solutions to the infidelity issue. Canio may declare that the comedy is over, but the tragedy that lingers instead pertains to both sexes. And the commedia dell’arte tradition with its clownish cuckold lives on within the verismo tragedy whenever Pagliacci is staged.

What then of the cuckold character today? More than a decade has passed since Pagliacci, along with a sexual revolution, so surely we must have reached some new level of awareness when it comes to the issue of infidelity?

Well, I guess maybe we haven’t. When it comes to the tragic cuckold at least, many of the perceptions of biological paternity found in Strindberg are very much alive today. I have noticed it, for example, in Per Olov Enquist’s excellent novel The Visit of the Royal Physician (2000) about King Christian VII of Denmark and Doctor Johann Friedrich Struensee. In Enquist’s take on the highly dramatic story of the German royal physician’s rise to power as de facto king of Denmark, enlightenment-inspired Struensee is portrayed as the hero in a horribly backwards, medieval Denmark, and his wrongful execution is depicted as a terrible loss. However, Enquist allows Struensee some vindication in the epilogue in which he notes that the child that Struensee fathered during his affair with Christian VII’s queen, Caroline Mathilde, lived on and granted him a kind of immortality. “The little daughter Louise Augusta grew up in Denmark (…)” writes Enquist, and goes on to describe the beauty and fertility of the princess:

“She is described as very beautiful, with a ‘disturbing’ vitality. (…) She married the Duke Frederik Christian of Augustenborg who was hardly her equal in any way. She did, however, have three children with him (…) today there is not one European monarchy that cannot trace its heritage back to Johann Friedriech Struensse, his English princess, and their little girl.”

The juxtaposition of sexual potency and immortality is striking to me in this paragraph in which the Danish monarchy seems to play the part of the cuckold husband whose DNA is not carried on or at least only carried on to a limited degree, opposite Struensee as the handsome lover who fathered a beautiful, vivacious daughter.

"I'm bringin' sexy back/Them Danish boys don't know how to act/I think it's special what's behind thy back/So turn around and I'll pick up the slack."

I also find it telling that the theme of the cuckold as a figure is still something that is predominantly associated with a male character. The betrayed woman has always been, and continues to be, a tragic figure, doesn’t she? Even today we love to revel in the not-at-all-funny pain of historical betrayed woman characters struggling to make it in a partriarchal society, such as Betty Draper or Saul Dibb’s Duchess of Devonshire. It’s still hard to imagine a hilarious comedy about a younger, handsome man cheating on an older woman who is laughed at for her inability to maintain her young husband’s sexual interest. I can’t even imagine a movie like Forgetting Sarah Marshall with the tables turned so that it’s the betrayed woman we’re laughing at, rather than Jason Segel’s naked, unattractive, blue-balled, cuckold boyfriend character. The idea that a woman might be a ridiculous sex-crazed authority rather than a vulnerable victim with hurt feelings still seems alien in our contemporary narratives. The only character vaguely of this sort that I am able to think would be Jennifer Aniston’s sexually harassing boss in Horrible Bosses.

I guess you could say that the development of the cuckold motif in the history of drama and comedy is a good indicator that we still have a long way to go towards equality. Still, I think I prefer to see it as a testiment to the genius of Leoncavallo, rather than to the backwards nature of today’s cultural perception of gender, that his tragic comedy Pagliacci still feels so intensely relevant today.

Tumblr – for your daily opera fix

I just discovered this wonderful Tumblr blog – One opera, singer or composer a week. This week’s opera is Rigoletto, and the blogger was kind enough to link to my post on the character of Gilda and even has some nice things to say about it! Yay!

I love the concept of the blog, which is also open to submissions and often adds amusing and clarifying little descriptions to the posted videos, and I have added it to my Google Reader. You should do the same if you’re looking for a good opera pusher!

Farewell, Ingvar Wixell

Baritone Ingvar Wixell died this weekend, on Saturday October 8. He was 80 years old.

During his career he came to rank among the world’s finest singers, appearing alongside stars like Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Personally, I mostly associate Wixell with his performance as Rigoletto in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film version from 1982 with Pavarotti (the Duke) and Edita Gruberova (Gilda).

I think this movie was the first production I ever saw Wixell in, and he really moved me in the part of the court jester. Which says quite a lot, because I thought the staging was mostly ridiculous. Not even the Duke of Mantova would be decadent enough to have a bed in the middle of his banqueting hall in which to ravish maidens, like in the scene in the above video. Ole’ Dukie is no sunday school child, I realise that, but he has more style than that. And even if he did have a special Banquet Hall Love Nest, I find it hard to believe that he would be able to keep his ducal sexin’ quiet enough for Rigoletto not to notice it even when he’s standing right outside the draperies. (You just know that the Duke would be the kind of person to be really loud during sex).

But I digress. Ingvar Wixell gave a really moving performance in this as well as in everything else that I’ve heard him in – from Un ballo in maschera to the Eurovision Song Contest.

May he rest in peace.

Happy Birthday, Ruggerone!

Ruggero Raimondi is 70 years old today! I just did a quick search and found that I’ve mentioned Raimondi no less than 11 times since I started this blog.

I quite like him, you see. In fact, I think he’s a bit of an operatic genius. I first discovered him when Annina introduced me to his work back in 2003, and since then I’ve only grown more impressed with his wonderful voice and his incredible dramatic range.  Raimondi can bring the funny, as seen here in Don Pasquale:

But he’s also my absolute favourite singer for the part of the profoundly evil, dangerously alluring Scarpia (it was in this part, too, that he gave us the Greatest Opera Kiss Of All Time):

He’s powerfully full-beard-y as Zaccaria in Nabucco:

And he can be tremendously moving as well, like when he’s interpreting the part of Filippo in Don Carlo

In short: He deserves all the praise he can get for everything that he’s done for the world of opera. And At the Lighthouse would like to extend the warmest, heartiest of birthday greetings to Mr Raimondi on this big day. A very happy birthday to you, Ruggerone!

The Apostrophic Prop – My five favourite inanimate objects in operas

Opera props. They don’t get the grand arias, and yet they often manage to steal the show. Below are five examples.

5. “Vecchia zimarra” – Colline’s coat in La Bohème
I’m including this one because it’s probably one of the most famous instances of an inanimate object taking center stage in an opera, and it illustrates quite well how an object can be useful in the story of an opera.

The element of surprise is an important factor here. Opera makes much use of the apostrophe – the idea of addressing someone who is absent or dead (or dying). We’re used to opera characters expressing their yearning for their lover (like Rodolfo in “Ah, Mimì, tu più non torni”) or their native country (like Aida with “O patria mia”) or praying to an – absent – god, like Norma’s “Casta Diva”. But when a character is suddenly addressing an inanimate object which, thus, becomes the apostrophe, it’s hard not to be taken by surprise and struck by the gesture. It seems unreasonable to be wasting that much attention on a stupid old coat when a woman is dying on stage at the same time.

But of course that’s exactly the effect that the composer and librettist are going with Colline. We’re thrown at first by the amount of attention Colline’s squandering on his measly piece of clothing, but once we recover we understand all the more fully the miserable poverty which is at the core of the La Bohème story. No one should have to be that attached to a coat, and certainly no one should have to make the choice between a warm coat in the winter and medicine for a dying friend.

4. “La tua fanciulla io sono” – The handkerchief in Otello
If there is something silly about the attention paid to the coat in La Bohème, the attention paid to the handkerchief in Otello is downright grotesque. Otello and Desdemona share such a great, solid love, and yet something as thin and flimsy as a handkerchief is able to come between them, and this point adds considerably to the feeling of tragedy in the story. Shakespeare always had a great eye for little details like these, but I think Verdi added a lot to this particular opera MacGuffin in his opera. The handkerchief appears in several scenes throughout the opera, the Emilia/Iago/Desdemona/Otello quartet with the handkerchief in its center being the most interesting of these, I think. Like in Verdi’s much more famous quartetBella figlia dell’amore” from Rigoletto, we get to hear the confusing, conflicting thoughts of four different individuals all at once, as the wretched, fatal little handkerchief changes hands for the first time in the opera:

(from circa 06:29)

The handkerchief-MacGuffin impressed Puccini sufficiently that he included a reference to it in his Tosca. “Iago had a handkerchief, I have a fan” says Scarpia, as he schemes to make a fan come between Tosca and her lover Mario.

3. “Ich habe deinen Mund geküsst” – The Severed head of John the Baptist in Salome
Sometimes the fascination of the apostrophic inanimate object in an opera stems from the fact that the object is in fact inanimate, that is, not living. This is the case in Richard Strauss gruelling opera Salome in which Salome addresses the severed head of John the Baptist:

The scene is horrifying because we, the audience, are all too aware that the bloody, lifeless, severed head that Salome is clutching can serve as nothing more than an apostrophe. Yet Salome insists that it is not an apostrophe, that Jochanan is there, sensitive to her touch, and her lips pressed against his.

Ah! Du wolltest mich nicht deinen Mund küssen lassen, Jochanaan! Wohl, ich werde ihn jetzt küssen! Ich will mit meinen Zähnen hineinbeißen, wie man in eine reife Frucht beißen mag. Ja, ich will ihn jetzt küssen, deinen Mund, Jochanaan. Ich hab’ es gesagt. Hab’ ich’s nicht gesagt? Ja, ich hab’ es gesagt. Ah! Ah! Ich will ihn jetzt küssen … Aber warum siehst du mich nicht an, Jochanaan? Deine Augen, die so schrecklich waren, so voller Wut und Verachtung, sind jetzt geschlossen. Warum sind sie geschlossen? Öffne doch die Augen, erhebe deine Lider, Jochanaan! Warum siehst du mich nicht an? Hast du Angst vor mir, Jochanaan, daß du mich nicht ansehen willst? (….) Ah! Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ah! Ich habe ihn geküßt deinen Mund, es war ein bitterer Geschmack auf deinen Lippen. Hat es nach Blut geschmeckt? Nein! Doch es schmeckte vielleicht nach Liebe … Sie sagen, daß die Liebe bitter schmecke … Allein, was tut’s? Was tut’s? Ich habe deinen Mund geküßt, Jochanaan. Ich habe ihn geküßt, deinen Mund.

2. “L’ho perduta! Me meschina!” The pin in Le Nozze di Figaro
Brrrrr! Ok, on to something a bit lighter: Le Nozze di Figaro. This opera buffa is basically one big scheme, and a pin plays a quite important part in it. Susanna, while trying to trick the lustful Count into thinking she’ll meet him in the garden for a tête-a-tête later that night, hands the Count a letter sealed with a pin that he must give back to her as a confirmation of their date. Barbarina is charged with the responsibility of bringing the pin back to Susanna, but she loses it. Despite not quite grasping the significance of the pin, she is devastated and naively tells Figaro of her blunder. Figaro doesn’t realise that Susanna is merely playing an elaborate prank on the Count and gets jealous out of his mind.

There’s a bit of the Otello handkerchief atmosphere going on here, what with all the marital problems and jealousy, but it’s quite obviously played for laughs by Mozart and librettist da Ponte. “L’ho perduta, me meschina” is a much too beautiful and solemn aria to be sung about a silly little pin, and the use of a pin as a prop on stage has great comedic potential: It’s way to small to ever actually be seen from the audience seats. There is also something ridiculously phallic about the image of a pin (consider Burt Bacarach’s song lyrics: “What do you get when you fall in love?/A guy with a pin to burst your bubble”), and indeed Danish director Kasper Holten once staged a version of Figaro in which it was obvious that Barbarina was singing about the loss of, well, her bubble to the Count’s, ahem, pin. Finally, there is the possible slap-stick gag of a character accidentally pricking his finger on the pin, which does in fact happen to the Count as he is first handed Susanna’s note. This causes him to deliver my all-time favourite random throw-away line in an opera:

“Ugh, women are always putting pins everywhere!”

1. The embroidered jersey – Peter Grimes
The one opera prop that truly gets to me, however, is the knitted jersey from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. Ellen Orford and Grimes’ friend Balstrode find a small jersey that has washed up on shore, and by its special ornamental embroidery Ellen recognises it as a jersey she knitted for Grimes’ young boy apprentice. Grimes’ previous apprentice died in accidental circumstances, and Balstrode and Ellen Orford have tried hard to defend Grimes against the claims that Grimes was responsible, but the washed up jersey forces them to face the fact that Grimes has, whether wittingly or not, brought death upon yet another child.

Embroidery in childhood was
A luxury of idleness.
A coil of silken thread giving
Dreams of a silk and satin life.
Now my broidery affords
The clue whose meaning we avoid.
My hand remembered its old skill –
These stitches tell a curious tale.
I remember I was brooding
On the fantasies of children
And dreamt that only by wishing I
Could bring some silk into their lives.
Now my broidery affords
The clue whose meaning we avoid.

A silk and satin life – the ornamental anchor that Ellen stitched on the jersey holds such a heartbreaking significance. The purpose of the jersey was to keep the apprentice warm enough for him to perform his duties at sea. But the purpose of the stitched anchor was to show the boy that he was cared for, that he was human. The aria reminds me of a passage from Alice Munro’s short story “Privilege” about the significance of a series of bird illustrations amid the ruthless, merciless conditions at the early-20th-century provinsial school of Rose, the young protagonist:

“One thing in the school was captivating, lovely. Pictures of birds. Rose didn’t know if the teacher had climbed up and nailed them above the blackboard, too high for easy desecration, if they were her first and last hopeful effort, or if they dated from some earlier, easier time in the school’s history. Where had they come from, how had they arrived there, when nothing else did, in the way of decoration, illustration?
A red-headed woodpecker; an oriole; a blue jay; a Canada goose. The colors clear and long-lasting. Backgrounds of pure snow, of blossming braches, of heady summer sky. In an ordinary classroom they would not have seemed so extraordinary. Here they were bright and eloquent, so much at variance with everything else that what they seemed to represent was not the birds themselvess, not those skies and snows, but some other world of hardy innocence, bounteous information, privileged lightheartedness. No stealing form lunchpails there; no slashing coats; no pulling down pants and probing with painful sticks,; no fucking…”

If the surroundings are reducing indivduals to dispensable things to be used and discarded, if accusations and verbal abuse has taken the place of dialogue, then the communication through the inanimate object becomes the only means of expressing love, and hope, and recognition.  And there’s so much of that in Ellen’s aria here: Her love for Peter, her hopes for a happy life with him, and her recognition of John, the apprentice, as a fellow human being who might want something pretty to look at.